Thursday, June 19, 2014

Why Musical Theater is a Failed Art

 This is written with a few grounding assumptions in mind:
  • The main purpose of art is to aid in the acquiring of self-knowledge, spiritual understanding, and ethical development.
  • Poor (or cheap) art does this less than great art.
The musical (whether performed on stage or in film) is certainly "cheap art" as it does not convincingly represent the human condition in a way that creates catharsis or new understanding. This failure is a consequence of its irrationality, ineptitude, and inconsistency.

The Irrational Musical

Plato thought that almost all poetry and drama was worthless-- he felt that they were merely flawed imitations that
distanced men even further from the pure "form" of things. Aristotle disagrees with his teacher, and felt that imitation can help people to learn otherwise difficult or unapparent truths. In his "Poetics," he categorizes the different types of poetry (or drama), their purpose, and how they best accomplish that purpose. He writes:

"...For we must not demand of Tragedy any and every kind of pleasure, but only that which is proper to it. And since the pleasure which the poet should afford is that which comes from pity and fear through imitation, it is evident that this quality must be impressed upon the incidents" (Poetics, Part XIV).

According to this quote, a work of drama ought to work through an audience's deep emotions to leave an impression. Aristotle felt drama only does this if it is believable. We are only sympathetic with situations that seem reasonable to us. Who hasn't seen a terrible horror movie that only provokes laughter? Contrast that with a Hitchcock classic like Rear Window, whose plot is completely conceivable, allowing it to create genuine feelings of intensity.

This doesn't mean that good art is confined to strict realism. Great stories like the Lord of the Rings are certainly not rational. But while that story (and its representation in film) is not scientifically realistic, it is spiritually and experientially so. We may not each battle armies of orcs or trolls, but we certainly encounter feelings of inadequacy, fear, and subsequent hope.

Now to the musical. The defining aspect of a musical is, of course, the presence of music that originates from characters in the story. Ironically, there are only a few instances in musicals where a song is appropriate or believable. (There are even fewer times when one is welcome.) For example, in the Sound of Music, it is justifiable for the Von Trapps to sing frequently. That's their thing-- it's been established by the plot. For the majority of musical productions, though, the song is inappropriate. Look at West Side Story-- the instant rival street gangs break into song and dance, they are immediately unbelievable and discredited.

Why? Well what would be our natural reaction to these actions in real life? Someone who spontaneously poured his heart out through song at work, school, or any public setting would be psychologically ostracized. They would not be taken seriously, which is why they would never inspire any sort of cathartic experience for the audience. The same thing happens, though maybe to a lesser extent, in musicals.

The Inept Musical

To say the majority of songs in musicals are lyrically cheap is an understatement. Great dramatists see lyrics and poetic form as an opportunity to strengthen distinctions or amplify sentiment. A great example is found in Act 4, Scene I of Shakespeare's Macbeth. 

The witches speak almost entirely in trochees (emphasis on the first syllable in the foot):

Double,/ double/ toil and/ trouble;
Fire/ burn and/ cauldron/ bubble.

Macbeth, on the other hand, in iambs (emphasis on the second syllable):

I con/jure you,/ by that/ which you/ profess,
Howe'er/ you come/ to know/ it, ans/wer me

This juxtaposition of poetic meter lends itself to the presentation of its characters. 

The Original 'Cats,' and still the best.
Poetic methods are too often ignored in musicals. It's a shame when great literary works like Les Miserables are burdened down by songs with cheap, predictable lyrics that feel even more out of place when they claim to coincide with, or even add to,  the genius of Victor Hugo. It seems ignorant of Andrew Lloyd Webber to put to music the poems of T. S. Eliot in Cats, when Eliot is ironically more musical in poetry than Webber is in his score. 

The mistake Cats, Les Miserables, and nearly all other musicals make is that they are what German philosopher Immanuel Kant would call "overwrought." From the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Kant's aesthetics:

"Kant notices that we have a problem with the overwrought-- that which draws attention to itself as precisely an artificial object or event. 'Over-the-top' acting is a good example. Kant expresses this point by saying that, in viewing a work of art we must be aware of it as art, but it must never-the-less appear natural."

This concept of course extends the arguments that musicals are both irrational and inconsistent, but also that they are inept. By re-rendering great literary works and dragging them into a cheaper form of "entertainment" (a dirty word to use when describing Hugo's and Eliot's works) the producers of the musical display a tragic misunderstanding of the original art. By presenting it in an "overwrought" manner, they castrate it.

The Inconsistent Musical

More from Aristotle:

"As in the structure of the plot, so too in the portraiture of character, the poet should always aim either at the necessary or the probable" (Poetics, Part XV).

There are certain characters for whom music is appropriate, like the aforementioned Von Trapps. Another instance of great character development through song is in the first Hobbit movie, in which the dwarves sing one of their traditional songs around a fire before beginning their journey. That song reveals more about their culture and increases the viewer's understanding of their situation. 

Unfortunately, most musicals neglect the fact that a tendency towards song is, in itself, a character trait. Characters that are given this trait when it isn't consistent with the rest of their other behaviors are aesthetically self-destructive. It's an even bigger problem when every character is given this trait. Hero and villain. King and tramp. When you attempt to create contrasting characters and then have them both sing, the effect is entirely ruined. In order for a drama to satisfy the classification of "musical," it immediately fails to create characters that are built on the "necessary or the probable."

I'm not saying that music has no place in these productions-- it certainly is valuable for its unexplained ability to reach mankind's emotions and spirits. However, for Aristotle and a lot of the great early dramatists, the "song" of the presentation almost always comes from a third party, such as the chorus. Such is the case with a lot of modern films-- the soundtrack, while nearly always present, does not originate from any of the characters and therefore enhances, not interrupts, the presentation of plot.

Aesthetic Responsibility

"The Artist is the antennae of the Race"-- Ezra Pound

I had a drama teacher in Junior High that was convinced that the Roman Empire collapsed because they stopped loving drama and instead favored gladiatorial spectacle. This is obviously not the case, but I think the point is important. Like Pound says, the artist's responsibility to his race is to measure where his race is going and help in its direction or re-direction. Because musical theater is aesthetically and morally deficient, it ought to be exorcised from our culture and replaced by genuine art that demands more from itself and its audience.


Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Truth, Religion, and the Voice of God

We all speak a failing language. "Every concept originates through our equating what is unequal," wrote Nietzsche in his On Truth and Lies in an Extra-Moral Sense. For an example of what he means, think of the word "cat." There is nothing about the word itself that gives us meaning. It is only because we have been taught that the combination of lines or sounds that represent that word are intended to signify our concept of a cat. Of course, there are an infinite variety of cats-- the cat that I think of when I hear the word is different from the cat you are thinking of. The same problem exists with colors. I could be seeing the world through completely different eyes and would never be able to communicate that; my blue may be your green, but since birth I was taught that what you see as green is really called "blue." We would both say the sky is blue while looking at completely different colors. 

Friedrich Nietzsche
Nietzsche claims that our attempts to categorize the world into something like language also compromise the integrity of the subjects. "We obtain the concept, as we do the form, by overlooking what is individual and actual; whereas nature is acquainted with no forms and no concepts, and likewise with no species, but only with an X which remains inaccessible and undefinable for us."

Obviously these are small issues and life goes on. For Nietzsche, however, the problem spreads into bigger areas, namely the realm of truth: "truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are; metaphors which are worn out and without sensuous power; coins which have lost their pictures and now matter only as metal, no longer as coins." Nietzsche's argument is that even if universal truth where to exist, language would be unable to communicate it.

While I feel that universal truth does exist, I agree with Nietzsche's claims about language. I agree that humans are incapable of perfectly communicating with each other. 

This has troubling implications in a lot of areas of life, but most importantly with religion. The fact is when someone says "God is like..." they are immediately constructing a failing metaphor, but a metaphor that is necessary. This is especially true with the truths that religion tries to teach, because they are often grand, abstract, and border on incomprehensible. Because of this, nobody will ever be able to successfully teach another man who God is. Spiritual experience is too personal. Any attempt at communicating it with others is an attempt at "equating what is unequal." This is how it should be-- if each of us is truly unique, than in order for God to have truly personal interactions with us it is required that each experience is also unique. 

Rodin's "The Thinker"
What function, then, does religion have? Are we a large group of people aimlessly attempting to agree with each other and trying to fool ourselves into thinking that subjective truths are really objective ones? To some extent I am worried that this is the case. When church functions merely as a social facilitator, as an abstract code of ethics, or a type of psychosis, it is as Karl Marx described it to be-- "an opiate of the masses," a numbing agent. Effective religion requires that each individual comes to know God for himself, deeply and personally, and can only rely so much on what others teach. The pursuit of truth is a difficult process-- Nietzsche acknowledged this and so did Joseph Smith. Said the prophet: "A fanciful and flowery and heated imagination beware of; because the things of God are of deep import; and time, and experience, and careful and ponderous and solemn thoughts can only find them out. Thy mind, O man! if thou wilt lead a soul unto salvation, must stretch as high as the utmost heavens, and search into and contemplate the darkest abyss, and the broad expanse of eternity—thou must commune with God." 

I must admit that human communication obviously is successful to some extent, otherwise our world wouldn't function at all. Because of this, our religion is still important, but only insofar as it facilitates and promotes personal experience with God. Joseph Smith's quote suggests that such an experience requires time, dedication, and refining. However, communication from God is pure and uninhibited by the frailties of language; it is channeled in a way that exceeds understanding and is absolutely individual. Attempts to describe such an experience to others are frustratingly impossible, but necessarily so. While we can and ought to lead others to this type of experience, the path to salvation will ultimately become a personal one.


Monday, April 28, 2014

The Objectified Woman and the Snuffed Out Soul

The First Mourning- Bouguereau
Pain and love came into the world as conjoined twins. No one can escape the grief that comes with rejection, having to watch someone they care about suffer, or the separation that death brings. But in a short-sighted, pathetic attempt, our culture tries. Driven by cowardice and complacency, the goal of objectification is to maximize reward and minimize risk; to simultaneously escape both loneliness and consequence.

To say that this is a spreading problem is undeniable-- pornography has grown into an economic titan, television and film are becoming increasingly adult-themed, and the female form is exploited at every opportunity. All these mechanisms have a common engine that strives to take one thing out of the equation-- their subject's personalities. They exploit the beautiful, and in the act, remove the sublime.

Wanderer Above the Sea Fog- Friedrich
German philosopher Immanuel Kant distinguished the beautiful from the sublime by defining the beautiful as something that is found in a contained form. It has defined boundaries and shape, and it is this shape that usually causes our appreciation of the thing. The sublime, on the other hand, is limitless, expansive, and infinite. Kant felt that we can experience the sublime in two ways—either at the moment we realize something is beyond our capability to measure it or at the moment we realize that something has limitless power and the capability to destroy us, yet it has no dominion over us. If we run with Kant’s definition, then to experience the sublimity of love requires acknowledging the terror that accompanies vulnerability. Any man who has experienced this knows that women’s souls can be explosive and nebulous. One moment they can feel like a summer breeze, the next a harsh wind. To say the least, they are immeasurable. Too frequently this causes men to seek out cheap imitations of companionship that don't require risk-- either by wasting away in their dark rooms with pornography or behaving promiscuously (by this I mean expressing strong romantic feelings loosely and without conviction) with a different girl every weekend. These actions ironically distance us further and further from what it is we actually desire.

Ours is a culture obsessed with the beautiful. It seeks to capture it with film, pixels, and sounds. Our eyes have been trained to drift instantly to the measurable aspects of female interactions. Too often our conversations about women are uninspired—how hot was she? What was her body like? Instead, where are the men who are less concerned with a woman’s shape but whether or not her mind has stretched out into the far reaches of her potential? When we stop recognizing the limitless in each other, we stifle it.

 The hard truth is that recognizing the majesty of the female soul increases our sense of hesitation in approaching it. Unfortunately, simply having the courage to allow ourselves to be vulnerable doesn't always result in sublime experiences. Unlike many of the forces of nature, we can't always have control over others souls like we wish we could. We can't force others to feel for us the way we feel for them. But if we as men choose to hold out with some integrity, then we can eventually reach the sublime experience described by Kant: we will share dominion with a woman not because we force her, but because she has chosen to offer it freely to us as we offer ourselves to her in harmonious partnership. We are then exposed to both of Kant's concepts of the sublime-- another soul, limitless and measureless, has aligned itself with our own, replacing our vulnerability with security. This pursuit requires strong people who are willing to shutout the pervasive influences that tell us to seek out the easy in life. It requires both patience and ferocity and a desire to cultivate the depths of our own souls while helping others do the same. In this framework, pain no longer becomes a hindrance, but a foundation.

Ezra Pound described the need for these kind of men in the last two stanzas of his poem "Revolt:"

Great God, if men are grown but pale sick phantoms
That must live only in these mists and tempered lights
And tremble for dim hours that knock o'er loud
Or tread too violent in passing them;

Great God, if these thy sons are grown such thin ephemera,
I bid thee grapple chaos and beget
Some new titanic spawn to pile the hills and stir
This earth again.